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Hg                                                                                                          B. POLEVOI
hero, "a downright brave lad". And then he would start
reading again. And strange as it may seem, these remarks
of his, these lyrical digressions, did not divert the atten-
tion of his listeners, but, on the contrary, helped them
better to understand what he read.
For two hours a day, between dinner and the medical
treatments, he studied German, learnt words by heart,
constructed sentences and sometimes, suddenly struck by
the sounds of the foreign words, he? would say:
uDo you know what 'chicken' is in German, boys?
'Kiichelcken. That sounds nice. You know, it gives you
the impression of something tiny, fluffy and tender. And
do you know what little bell' is? 'Glockling'. There's a
tinkle in that word, isn't there?"
One day Stepan Ivanovich, unable to restrain himself,
inquired:
"What do you want to learn German for, Comrade
Commissar? You're only tiring yourself uselessly. It would
be better if you saved your strength... ."
The Commissar looked at the old soldier slyly and
said:
"Ekh, you greybeard! Is this a life for a Russian? In
what language will I talk to the German girls in Berlin
when we get there? In Russian?"
Sitting on the edge of the Commissar's bed, Stepan
Ivanovich wanted, quite reasonably, to answer that for
the time being the fighting line was running not far from
Moscow and that it was still a long way to the German
girls, but there was such a ring of cheerful confidence in
the Commissar's voice that the old soldier coughed and
answered seriously:
"No, not in Russian, of course. But still, Comrade
Commissar, you ought to take care of yourself after what
you have gone through."
"The pampered horse is the first to come a cropper.
Haven't you heard that before? It's bad advice you're
giving me, greybeard."
None of the patients in the ward had a beard, but for
some reason the Commissar called them all "greybeards",
and there was nothing offensive about the way he said
it; on the contrary, it had a ring of kindly humour and
the patients felt soothed by it,